The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments regarding two rare plants in Rio Blanco County and eastern Utah as it considers whether they need Endangered Species Act protection.
The action follows a federal ruling in 2016 siding with environmentalists challenging the agency's prior withdrawal of a 2013 proposal to list the Graham's beardtongue and White River beardtongue for protection and designate critical habitat.
It also comes following good news about the plants' numbers, resulting from new surveys showing the existence of tens of thousands more plants than previously had been known.
The agency says the surveys also show the plants have stable population trends.
The two plants are penstemons. The Fish and Wildlife Service said in a news release that the Graham's beardtongue "produces vivid, two-lipped pink flowers" and is found along a horseshoe-shaped band of land about 80 miles long and six miles wide, extending from northeastern Utah to northwestern Colorado.
The agency says the White River beardtongue has showy lavender flowers and has a smaller range of only about 20 miles in the same region, extending into both states. Both plants' flowers support many native pollinators.
The plants are found in barren terrain where oil shale rock surfaces, and face threats including energy development, livestock grazing, invasive weeds and climate change, the Fish and Wildlife Service says on its website.
In 2014, the agency withdrew its proposed listing due to a conservation agreement involving local counties and state and federal agencies. Conservation groups sued, and a judge found fault with aspects of the agency's reliance on the agreement to drop its listing proposal. The court ordered the parties to see if the agreement could be modified to satisfy everyone, but those efforts failed, and in late 2017 the court entered a final judgment reinstating the proposed listing and critical habitat rules.
The conservation agreement has been amended and remains in place. The parties remain committed to measures such as establishing more than 44,000 acres of occupied and unoccupied suitable habitat as protected conservation areas with limited surface disturbance, and providing for a 300-foot buffer from plants in the case of energy development.
Meanwhile, thanks to new survey information, the Fish and Wildlife Service says it now knows of 24,118 additional Graham's beardtongue plants, bringing its 2018 range-wide population estimate to nearly 56,000 plants.
"For White River beardtongue, we now know of an additional 20,989 plants, which brings our 2018 range-wide population estimate to 32,412 plants," the agency said in a Federal Register notice.
The agency is asking the public for information to help it determine what, if any, protections the plants need under the Endangered Species Act, as it revisits its 2013 proposed listing and critical habitat rules. Comments and scientific information are being accepted through Oct. 15. They may be submitted by visiting www.regulations.gov and entering FWS–R6–ES–2019–0029 in the search box. They also may be mailed to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS–R6–ES–2019–0029, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041–3803.